As steam and rail shrunk the globe at the turn of the twentieth century, the race was on to claim the last great prizes of exploration—and of the globe’s rapidly diminishing list of untouched extremes, the geographic North Pole was literally and figuratively at the top.
The first to reach the pole would secure glory and undying fame, not to mention considerable monetary rewards. The stage was set for drama and a cast of larger-than-life figures assembled, but none could predict the plot twists and (still) unresolved controversy that would unfold. Central to the story, though rarely invoked by name, was Matthew Henson. Born in Maryland to a family of free Black sharecroppers a year after the Civil War, Henson became a global explorer of the first order at a time when African-Americans faced unbearable social restrictions.
Henson’s own family fled racial violence when he was still an infant, selling their farm and settling in Washington, D.C. Both of Henson’s parents died when he was a boy, and by thirteen the uncle in whose care he had been left could no longer afford to keep him. For a time, Henson worked and slept in a restaurant. One of the regulars was an old sailor called Baltimore Jack, whose stories kindled Henson’s wanderlust. He walked the forty miles to Baltimore and talked himself into a berth as a cabin boy on the schooner Katie Hines. Henson spent the next six years at sea, traveling to Europe, North Africa, and calling on ports in China, Japan, the Philippines, and the Russian Arctic. The ship’s captain took Henson under his wing and taught him the art of sailing as well as more traditional, academic subjects. His natural instincts and aptitude uncovered through these lessons would prove invaluable for the next phase of his life.
After Captain Childs died at sea, Henson returned to Washington and took a job as a clerk at a gentleman’s clothing store. One spring day in 1887, a dapper young naval officer stopped in, seeking a sun helmet for an expedition to Nicaragua, where he was charged with surveying a suitable route for a cross-continental canal.
Robert E. Peary was a hard and ambitious man, driven to make his name as an explorer of distant lands, and thoroughly unencumbered by the reality that native people had lived for centuries in many of the places he planned to discover. Nonetheless, Peary’s surveying skill and relentless self-promotion had earned him intriguing assignments from the Navy Corps of Civil Engineers. The Nicaragua billet included an allowance for a valet, and the store’s owner recommended the twenty-year-old Henson, whose unusual resumé combined the skills of an able seaman with a passing knowledge of fine men’s clothing. Peary offered him the job on the spot, beginning an unlikely partnership that would span nearly thirty years and bring both men farther north than anyone had ever gone – perhaps even to the pole itself.
Henson was ambitious in his own way, and during his two years in Nicaragua he graduated from Peary’s valet to his most-trusted surveying assistant. Peary held himself aloof from Henson, but as they sailed home from the tropics he shared with Henson his dream of exploring the high Arctic and asked him to join his next expedition to Greenland, in 1891 and 1892.
In Greenland, Henson learned to drive a sledge and handle dogs in the Inuit way and began to learn their language, a difficult tongue he would master in five subsequent expeditions. Traveling with expedition surgeon Dr. Frederick Cook and two other Americans, Henson and Peary explored the Greenland Ice Cap, where Henson again proved himself indispensable. “He is a better dog driver and can handle a sledge better than any man living, except some of the best Eskimo hunters themselves,” said Peary.
After a barnstorming tour that raised some $20,000 (Peary’s lectures climaxed with Henson driving a dog team onto the stage) they returned to Greenland in 1893 with a well-supplied team of thirteen, but their march the next spring was thwarted after only 125 miles. They spent the rest of the season caching supplies on the ice for an attempt the following year. Only Henson, Peary, and Hugh Lee stayed on for that one, an 86-day ordeal that ended with Henson and Peary hauling Lee the last few miles on a sledge piled with the carcasses of the dogs they had killed for food.
In 1898 they were back with a new goal – the pole itself. They stayed in the Arctic until 1902 and made several attempts, each thwarted in different ways: unstable ice pack, lack of supplies, and in the most tragic failing, the death of six of their Inuit comrades. In 1905, Henson and Peary set out yet again with a new ice-breaking ship named for the American president and explorer-in-chief, Teddy Roosevelt. The ship made it possible to get closer to the North Pole by sea than ever before, to the northern tip of Ellesmere Island at 83 degrees north latitude. In the spring of 1906, they pushed north across the sea ice but stopped well short of the Pole. On their return, Peary claimed a new “farthest north” of 87°06’. That record, like many of Peary’s claims, has since been disputed (a notation in his diary put the party about 36 miles farther south, at 86°30’) but it was enough to secure funds for another expedition.
Sailing north in the summer of 1908, Peary confided to Henson that this would be his last attempt at the pole. The famed explorer was 52 and feeling his age. He would rely more than ever on Henson, who was ten years younger and at the apex of skill and experience. They sailed as far north as possible and overwintered in the ice, using the time to prepare for their last make-or-break journey. They left little to chance, with a large expedition heavily reliant on Inuit labor and knowledge. According to a National Geographic profile of Henson, the Roosevelt’s complement included 22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children, 246 dogs, 70 tons of whale meat from Labrador, the meat and blubber of 50 walruses, hunting equipment, and tons of coal. Also aboard were seven Americans, experienced explorers all, but only one of whom – Henson – had any facility with the Inuit language. He was indispensable, not only for his cordial relations with the Inuit, but also for his vast experience, his skill in building the dog sleds, training the men, and handling the dogs. Peary did not travel light, and Henson made it all work.
When the push for the pole came, the members broke into small teams that leap-frogged one another, pushing forward to leave supplies and their strongest dogs for the next group. Henson was a frequent leader, trusted to navigate well. One by one, each team would drop away, finally leaving only Peary and a select group to make the final attempt at the North Pole. The final leg was obviously the glory round—dangerous and difficult, to be sure—but the most desired position all the same. Peary made his intention clear. He said, “Henson must go all the way. I can't make it there without him.”
The final leg was 174 miles. Henson and Peary pressed on with four Inuit men, Ootah, Egigingwah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah. Bob Bartlett, the skipper of the Roosevelt who led the last relay, estimated the party would need eight days to cover the distance. They did it in five, stopping only briefly to rest and feed the dogs. Even after an exhausted Peary was forced to ride in one of the sledges, they cracked on.
Henson was almost always at the front of the column, breaking trail. On April 6, 1909, Henson stopped at a place he reckoned to be the pole, then backtracked a short distance. When Peary arrived 45 minutes later, Henson told him, “I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world.” Peary stewed. He had instructed Henson stop short of the pole and wait for him. “Oh, he was hopping mad,” Henson recalled years later.
Peary took a sextant sighting and determined the camp to be within three miles of the Pole, and then planted the Stars and Stripes atop his igloo. Henson wrote of that moment, “as the flag snapped and crackled with the wind, I felt a savage joy and exultation. Another world’s accomplishment was done and finished, and as in the past, from the beginning of history, wherever the world’s work was done by a white man, he had been accompanied by a colored man.”
Within minutes, they were all fast asleep. Peary woke four hours later and wrote on a loose leaf of paper, “the pole at last!!!” Then, without waking Henson, he sledged 10 miles farther north and took another set of observations that, he said, showed him to be beyond the pole. Tensions between the two men festered as they dashed south toward the safety of land. “From the time we knew we were at the pole, Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me,” Henson later wrote. “It nearly broke my heart…that he would rise in the morning and slip away on the homeward trail without rapping on the ice for me, as was the established custom.”
When they reached Ellesmere after a return march of 17 days, they were met with shocking news. Dr. Frederick Cook, the surgeon on two of their earlier Greenland expeditions, claimed to have reached the pole nearly a year earlier, on April 21, 1908.
Cook had left Greenland for the pole in February 1908 with two Inuit companions and turned up again 14 months later with a whale of a tale. Cook’s story—which made the papers just one week before Peary could proclaim his own conquest of the Pole to world media—was that melting ice left the party marooned on uninhabited Devon Island, where they waited nearly a year for the sea ice to return so they could stagger back to Greenland. Henson didn’t believe it for a minute. He knew Cook well, deeming him “never good for a hard day’s work; in fact, he is not up to the average.” Henson quickly tracked down the two Inuit teenagers who had been with Cook. They said they’d never ventured more than a few miles from land.
Cook’s tale unraveled in fairly spectacular fashion and in the hubbub around his polar claim it came out that he’d also faked a photo of himself atop Mt. McKinley. That news prompted a crew of sourdoughs to climb the peak in 1910 and reclaim Alaska’s honor. Cook later went into the oil business in Oklahoma and was jailed for mail fraud. Even still, he has his defenders.
As Cook and Peary’s competing claims were aired in newspapers around the world, most were swayed to Peary’s side. At the time, few doubted Peary and Henson had reached the pole, though researchers in the 1980s concluded they’d probably missed it by 60 miles. That study, by British Polar explorer Wally Herbert, prompted the New York Times to issue a remarkable correction 79 years after splashing Peary’s claim across its front page (the Times had paid Peary $4,000 for the exclusive rights to his story).
To this day, a review of five sources will likely result in five differing opinions—each with its own set of proof. What we can say for certain is that Roald Amundsen first flew over the North Pole in 1926 in a dirigible, making him the first person to reach both poles. The first to get there over the ice was snowmobiler Ralph Plaisted who did it in 1968 on a bet. And the first to reach the Pole by dogsled was Wally Herbert—he of the study debunking Peary—in 1969.
While many believe Peary knowingly faked his navigation logs, there’s not a hint of evidence that Henson was in on it. Nor is there any question of the intellect, skill, savvy, and enthusiasm he brought to all of his explorations. Yet while Peary was lauded publicly, given a lifetime pension, and made a fortune on the lecture circuit, Henson quietly went to work as a civil servant. It wasn't until 1937 that Henson's contributions were honored with a membership in the renowned Explorer's Club of New York City. In 1944, Congress gave Henson a duplicate of the same medal it had given to Peary in 1909.
Words by Brook Sutton and Jeff Moag